President's Position

The airlines come out of the closet

May 1, 2006

AOPA President Phil Boyer has seen firsthand the decline of general aviation in foreign countries after the imposition of user fees.

The ancient Greek story-teller Aesop, whose fables usually end with a valuable lesson, wrote, "Never trust the advice of a man in difficulties." In this case, Aesop's words are the moral of the fable that the Air Transport Association (ATA) has created in giving advice for funding the FAA with user fees. ATA is the Washington, D.C., association that represents the airline industry — I often refer to it as the AOPA of the airlines, but advocating for the companies themselves, not the pilots. Unfortunately for us, ATA currently has GA in its sights. Just last month it put forth a long-awaited set of "principles" that govern its position on the looming issue of the need to re-authorize FAA funding by September 30, 2007.

In recent testimony, ATA told Congress it "must impose a schedule of mandatory user charges." It sure seems a little odd to me that an industry, which has proven in recent years that it can't even run its own businesses, is telling Congress what it "must" do.

ATA proposes a complex structure of user categories and fee-collection schemes. Since its inception, the nation's air traffic control (ATC) function has been part of an overall system conceived, operated, and designed for the airlines. That's how — through the ticket and fuel taxes you pay as an airline passenger — the world's safest and most efficient ATC system is funded. All other "user categories" including general aviation are incremental users of this system. The present funding method is very simple and very cost effective to collect. On a recent trip to Brussels, I spent time at EuroControl, which is tasked with the user fee collection for European air traffic operations, and where more than 2,000 people and expensive procedures are employed in the collection process.

The biggest concern to me in the ATA proposal is the blatant power grab. The airlines want Congress to remove itself from its role as the "board of directors" of the national airspace system. Control would shift to what the ATA calls "a reformed administrative structure" with "governance proportional to the extent of each user category's financial contribution." In other words, the airlines! The ATC system cannot be auctioned off to the highest bidder, who then takes charge. It exists for the national good, providing huge economic benefit to the entire country. Citizens should retain governance through their elected officials in Congress — not the airline industry; not the people who now consider a three-ounce bag of pretzels to be a satisfying meal. We must not let the airlines usurp the authority of Congress.

ATA further proposes that the FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) have autonomy to control costs and manage the system. Unfortunately the FAA has not demonstrated proficiency in either category over the years. There has been much improvement for sure, but it has taken congressional oversight to stimulate and guide this progress. Let's not remove Congress in the hope the FAA will change.

ATA's funding principles would assess aircraft charges based on a complicated formula including departures, "time in system," nighttime operations, and even the size of the airport used. These complex metrics would add an administrative burden that could prove to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Another ATA proposal is to segregate all revenue from aviation operations for use in maintaining and upgrading the airspace system. AOPA has long and successfully fought to ensure that money in the Aviation Trust Fund be used only for aviation. On the surface it appears that GA and the airlines agree. But underneath, this could be an ATA ploy to reserve its fee revenues exclusively in support of airline operations. Its document mentions large air carrier airports, and infrastructure, rather than treating aviation as a national transportation system based on large and small facilities. This would be like truckers insisting that their gas taxes only be used on highways for their exclusive use.

A bit of good news. The ATA document does "support" a continued GA fuel tax for operators of piston-powered aircraft. While a fair and reasonable aviation fuel tax has been, and should continue to be, the preferred method for financing the air traffic system, to single out a type of engine or fuel is shortsighted. Today's new GA aircraft are transitioning to new, lighter weight, and lower power turbine engines. Within the scope of the next generation air traffic system, GA aircraft may find small turbine engines the best propulsion method.

The fight against user fees won't be decided by this single set of principles from the airline industry. Be assured that your association will persevere for the entire journey. Fasten your seatbelts since all of this spells turbulence ahead as AOPA now awaits the release of an FAA document rumored to match the airline position.